Frist leaves Senate under cloud of scorn

Just days after fellow Republicans in the Senate blasted him for lackluster leadership that they say helped cost the party control of that legislative body, outgoing Majority Leader Bill Frist says his decision to not seek the Presidency came because voters didn’t know him well enough.

Writes Richard Powelson of Scripps Howard News Service:

A major reason Bill Frist is not running for president in 2008, the Senate GOP leader said Monday, is that he concluded there is not enough time for voters to get to know him beyond his Senate role.

Frist, retiring from the Senate in January, said as the Senate’s top leader for the past four years he was "responsible for being the center of gravity for 55 Republicans and therefore you are associated with that and not necessarily to the ideas of Bill Frist. I don’t think there is sufficient time to establish my identity."

For example, the Tennessee Republican said in an interview on his Senate career of 12 years, as an individual senator he would have been more aggressive than the Senate or White House was in working to ease the huge financial problems of the Medicare program.

Medicare has unfunded liabilities six times greater than Social Security, Frist said, "and is going to go bankrupt 20 years before Social Security and is growing 4 to 5 percent faster than Social Security. It’s a big issue."

As a Republican candidate for president — after his party has long controlled the Senate, House and White House — he would have faced a campaign where "the contrast of ideas is harder to spell out."

But the real reason Frist dumped his Presidential ambitions may have stemmed from the stinging criticism of GOP colleagues for his poor performance as Senate Majority Leader.

Writes Margaret Talev of McClatchy Newspapers:

Just before the 109th Congress finally adjourned shortly before dawn Saturday, retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist got some last-minute perks for his home state of Tennessee — and took a rhetorical beating from his colleagues.

Some Republicans heaped scorn on Frist, faulting him for fostering runaway federal spending.

Late Friday night, House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., said icily in a speech on the House floor that Congress’ failure to pass nine of 11 appropriations bills "should be placed squarely at the feet of the departing [Senate] majority leader." The House passed its version of the bills, but the Senate did not.

Congress passed a stopgap spending bill that continues federal funding at current levels until mid-February.

Frist managed to stick some pork for the folks back home into the final bills passed, however.

A sweeping tax, trade, Medicare and oil bill that passed early Saturday extended a sales-tax deduction for taxpayers in Tennessee, as well as Texas and other states with no income tax.

Tennessee hospitals, meanwhile, got help covering uninsured and underinsured patients. And songwriters collectively got an estimated $3 million tax break, something many constituents in Nashville will appreciate.

An angry Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., a fiscal conservative and Budget Committee chairman, said: "This is being done by the Republican leadership to the Republican membership.

"You just have to ask yourself how we, as a party, got to this point, where we have a leadership which is going to ram down the throats of our party the biggest budgetbuster in the history of the Congress under Republican leadership," Gregg said.